The most women candidates in at least a decade are on Tuesday’s ballot in Virginia and New Jersey — what may be the first glimpse of new political activism in the Trump era.
The two states are the only ones to hold major off-year elections in 2017, but they could provide a forecast of 2018, when thousands of seats nationwide are up for election in both federal and state races. The Virginia results, especially, could be a harbinger of what’s to come because the state’s electorate closely resembles the demographics of the country.
In the Old Dominion, 53 women are running for state office from lieutenant governor to delegate compared with 45 in the last election and 31 in 2013, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.
New Jersey has 79 women on the ballot for state office, up from 72 in 2013, the last time both the General Assembly and state Senate were up for election.
In both states, 2017 represents the highest number of women candidates running for state office since at least 2007, according to the analysis.
But the ceiling for higher level office may still be hard to crack. While New Jersey has a woman on the ballot for governor, and both states have female candidates for lieutenant governor, New Jersey has had just one female governor in its past and Virginia has had none. This year may not change the history books much: New Jersey’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Republican Kim Guadagno lags in the polls.
Nationwide, preliminary numbers for the 2018 elections show 66 women have announced their candidacy or shown interest in running for governor, CAWP data show. This is more than the number of women who ran during the 2010 and 2014 elections combined.
Despite the increased numbers, though, some experts say surges of women running for office have occurred previously and it will take more to fill the gender gap in U.S. politics.
“Of course having more women candidates is going to help, but we need to look at the structures within that make it more viable for these candidates to actually make it into office,” said CAWP spokeswoman Chelsea Hill.
She said her organization has had an increase this year in registrations for its Ready to Run trainings for female candidates of all parties, so she’s “very intrigued” to see how the 2018 elections shape up.
A new awakening
There is little question that President Donald Trump has spurred a new activism among many women. Hundreds of thousands of them were so disturbed by his comments towards women, immigrants and other minorities during his campaign that they marched in cities around the world the day after his inauguration.
Many wore pink cat-eared, knit “pussy hats” as a symbol of political defiance, alluding to Trump’s boast in a 2005 video that surfaced weeks before the election about grabbing women’s genitals.
“It was a waking moment for many women,” said Hala Ayala, a Democrat who’s running for Virginia’s 51st District House seat in Prince William County. “I saw a lot of women put on their sneakers and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and now we are going to do something about it.”
The 43-year-old single mother of two is running against Republican Del. Rich Anderson, who is seeking his fifth term. In 2015, Anderson did not face a challenger and in 2013 he beat his opponent by 7 percentage points.
But Ayala, a former cyber-security analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, said Hillary Clinton’s win in the district in the 2016 presidential election gives her hope. And the number of women on the ballot are proof that she’s not alone.
In Virginia, where 17 percent of the House of Delegates’ members are female, women make up 30 percent of the candidates in Tuesday’s general election, according to the Center for Public Integrity analysis of CAWP data. (The state Senate does not have races in 2017.)
The surge in candidates has meant that more House of Delegates races are being contested there by both major parties than in at least two decades, as the Center for Public Integrity reported earlier this fall.
In New Jersey’s Legislature, where women currently hold about 30 percent of the seats, women make up 29 percent of the candidates this election.
Nationwide, about 24 percent of state lawmakers are women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Overall, the majority of the female candidates in both states are Democrats: 48 out of 79 in New Jersey and 43 out of 53 in Virginia. This increase in Democratic women showing interest in running for office has been happening nationwide. But the number of Republican women candidates for New Jersey’s Legislature actually dropped from 34 in 2013 to 30 this year, CAWP data show.
Harrison Neely, executive director of the Senate Republican Majority in New Jersey, said despite the drop in women candidates running for Senate this year, the GOP has strong candidates in battleground districts. In three out of five of New Jersey’s most contested Senate districts, Republicans have women challenging Democratic incumbents, Neely said.
“As someone who has gone out there to recruit female candidates, you do see that women can be more hesitant to run for public office,” Neely said. “But there are just as many women as there are men, so we need to get more women on the ballot.”
He said the state Republican Party has stepped up efforts to recruit women and he remains hopeful that Guadagno, New Jersey’s first female lieutenant governor, becomes the state’s second female governor.
Last month, Republicans announced plans to launch Winning for Women to help women seek office. According to POLITICO, the group has nearly 30,000 people who have provided their names and email addresses online and it hopes to grow its ranks to 400,000 by the November 2018 elections.
On the other side, EMILY’s List, a 32-year-old political action committee that supports Democratic, pro-abortion rights women candidates, has reported more than 20,000 women interested in running for office have reached out to them since Trump’s victory, up from 920 women in the last two years combined.
An EMILY’s List partner, Emerge America is also training and encouraging Democratic women to run for political office. The organization launched in 2005 and now operates in 23 states, including New Jersey and Virginia.
A few weeks ago, it held a boot camp in Washington, D.C., for women running or thinking of running for office in the 2018 elections. This was the last of the three-day crash courses the organization had put together after seeing a more than 87 percent increase in women signing up since the 2016 election, according to Communications Director Allison Abney.
“The number of women that want to run is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s amazing,” Abney said. “Some of these women are teachers, parents, lawyers, and many have no idea how to go about this. So we help to prepare them.”
Abney said one of the biggest challenges newcomers face is the fear of asking for money. So part of the boot camp training involves helping women confront their fears and actually start fundraising, even if they haven’t officially announced their candidacy.
Gearing up for 2018
At the boot camp, women from 12 states stood outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters, calling their friends and family members and asking them to contribute to their campaign. Some paced back and forth on a sidewalk across the street, while others sat on a small brick wall in front of the building kicking their feet and making the “hard ask.”
Monica Chinchilla, a city commissioner from San Francisco who plans to run for her local school board, made her first phone call to her “abuelita” in Fresno. “Hello, Grandma, how are you? How’s Grandpa? How are your chickens?” she asked in a soft voice and with a big smile on her face. “Can you contribute $100 a month through the entirety of my campaign?”
“This is fun for me. It’s almost like haggling,” she said. “So it’s not something new for me.”
In less than 25 minutes, she raised $1,350 for her 2018 run for school board.
Together the 41 women who attended the boot camp in D.C. raised more than $14,000 in the half-hour exercise. Jamie Maniscalco, finance director with Emerge America, applauded the women’s efforts and addressed their initial fears, “You see? It wasn’t that bad.”
Maniscalco, whose energy matched her bright floral print blazer, ended the first part of her fundraising crash course with a message that made all the women in the room erupt in cheers and applause.
“We are here. We are emerging,” Maniscalco said. “We are not waiting our turn anymore.”
Too early to call
Despite the new investments and attention to women in politics, Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, sounded a note of caution in regard to the barriers that still may exist for women.
“It’s going to be difficult for this to be a watershed moment,” Lawless said. “Democrats have to win a record number of seats and make up for the number of female retirements.”
Lawless, along with POLITICO and Loyola Marymount University, surveyed more than 2,000 potential candidates to determine whether Donald Trump has sparked their political activism and ambition.
The June study, titled “The Trump Effect,” found that while many women expressed interest in running for office, only a few were certain of throwing their hats in the ring for the 2018 or 2020 elections.
Lawless said this hesitation is the main factor that keeps women from filling the gender gap in politics. She said numerous studies have shown that once women take the initial steps to run they have the same chances of winning and raise the same amount of money as their male counterparts.
But those findings apply mostly to open seats. Lawless said the slow ascension of women into the electoral office also has a lot to do with advantages held by incumbents.
“Even though these statewide positions typically have term limits, there is a lot of moving up from one executive state position to the other,” Lawless said. “Given that men occupy 75 percent of those offices, it makes it difficult for any traditionally marginalized group to break in.”
This Tuesday, in Virginia’s House of Delegates races, nearly two out of every three Democratic women candidates and about one-third of Republican women candidates are running against current delegates.
For Sheila Bynum-Coleman, this will be her second time trying to unseat 12-term incumbent GOP Del. Riley E. Ingram in Hopewell, Virginia. Bynum-Coleman, a 43-year-old small-business owner and mother of five, said she has had to grow “thicker skin” since she first decided to run for public office.
Bynum-Coleman is the first African American to run for Virginia’s 62ndDistrict House seat and would be the first woman to win if she beats Ingram. Last Monday, eight days before the election, the Democrat sounded optimistic despite having raised less money than her opponent.
As of Oct. 26, Bynum-Coleman had raised $113,667 compared with Ingram’s $226,700, according to the most recent filings available from the Virginia Public Access Project, which gathers state election reports.
“People think that it’s impossible for me to win this seat,” Bynum-Coleman said. “But I have so many people that are supporting me from outside the party, or outside the caucus, so they came out to help me.”
She said it’s especially important for her to try because so many decisions that affect women, including the Affordable Care Act, are made mostly by men.
“We are constantly being attacked and not being able to have the freedom to make decisions for our own bodies and our own health,” she said. “So we need women at the table fighting for the rights of women.”
This story was co-published with Salon.
Correction, Nov. 6, 2017, 2:32 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Emerge America as an EMILY’s List affiliate. The group partners with EMILY’s List but the organizations are independent of each other.